The events of 2020’s pandemic are the definition of unprecedented, a word that’s been used to describe the uncertainty that reigned in the world throughout that now-historic year. That same sort of thing could be said for the world of TV and film production, which saw projects like M. Night Shyamalan’s Old shooting during a time when caution was the name of the game. It’s something that not only helped keep the movie on a tight and precise schedule, but also drastically affected the cast’s performances in some interesting ways.
On behalf of CinemaBlend, I was able to speak with Alex Wolff, Thomasin McKenzie and Gael Garcia Bernal during the press day for Old. Reflecting on the crazy energy that they all exude in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller, the film is set on a beach that’s rapidly aging its cast of characters. Much like the world around us in 2020, time passes way differently on this beach, and has its unique toll on the psyche of those experiencing it.
In a sense, Old saw its cast engaging in a bit of method acting. Working together under tight safety restrictions, but also in the tropical setting of the Domincan Republic, made the production an experience to remember. Here’s how Alex Wolff, an actor known to scale the true heights of horror with films like Hereditary, recalled the experience, and how the COVID-19 pandemic fueled his performance:
I think that the pandemic was a perfect encapsulation of what this movie is: being trapped, and feeling like time is just rushing by. And yet [M. Night] didn’t write it about the pandemic, it’s just very weird, dark happenstance. … One, we were thrilled to get out of the house and go do something, especially on a beach. But two, it was a very fascinating kind of metaphor for what we’ve been going through. And, in my opinion, it’s kind of an allegory for what I’ve been going through my whole life. Not necessarily my fear of time passing, but more that yesterday I was one thing and today I’m like six inches taller than I was. You know, it’s crazy how time goes.
Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle, M. Night Shyamalan kind of stumbled into a perfect analog for what the world was going through in 2020 with Old. The basic thread of uncertainty permeates the entire scenario faced by the Capa family, and everyone else they team up with on the secluded beach that’s hiding a big secret. Alex Wolff’s Trent is one of the main figures in that scenario, as he grows from young child to adolescent in a matter of hours.
So too does his sister Maddox, played by Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie. Also aging into her teenage years, Maddox and her brother have to navigate the physical and mental challenges that are presented in this scenario. It’s especially taxing because while they’re physically growing at an accelerated rate, they’re still mentally in their childhood. These factors combine into a perfect storm of panic, which makes the bubble of Old’s thematically-enclosed environment all the more stressful.
Which, ultimately, helped Thomasin McKenzie portray Maddox with the right amount of vulnerability, anxiety, and decisiveness. Much like Alex Wolff, McKenzie’s mindset was presented with a unique lens to work with on Old; which was only compounded by this project being the first the actor has ever embarked on without a family member accompanying her for the shoot. When asked how the circumstances of 2020 affected her performance, Thomasin McKenzie responded with these key aspects:
I think it definitely had a big impact, just kind of the uncertainty of the world. And not the fear, but feeling vulnerable being overseas, completely by myself, for a long period of time. In a way, the circumstances that I was in, and that the world was in, kind of really lended to the film, in that it meant that all the cast members, we were all in a bubble together. We all kind of only had each other to support and to be with, so we formed a really tight bond. Which obviously was really amazing for the Capa family, for Vicky and Gael and Alex and I, to form that kind of family relationship that was integral to the film. But it also meant that I was able to form close relationships with Eliza Scanlen and Abbey Lee, and all the amazing cast. So there were pros and cons to what was going on in the world, and how that kind of affected the film.
Bonding was ultimately the greatest by-product of Old’s very regimented shoot in a pandemic-focused world. With a cast isolated on a beach and working through the horrors of fiction in a time of real terror, the end result shows a fear that’s very real in contrast to a situation that’s thankfully fictitious. Still, when it came time for Gael Garcia Bernal to portray the role of the Capa family patriarch, Guy, world events helped him identify with the scares on the page all the better. In particular, the concept of time being altered in a moment of harrowing crisis:
More ways than I can even describe, because [in] making films, we leave a testimony of ourselves there, of who we are at the time. And then we look back on it, and we see a lot of sublimation of the time we were living in. This is something that definitely has to do, even thematically, with the moment we’re living in, because this uncertainty has to do with the fact that time was altered as well for us during the pandemic. … In the film, the most important premise is that time gets altered, time suddenly becomes really fast. So there’s a strong correlation with what’s happening in our times nowadays, absolutely.
Horror, much like any other realm of fiction, can help us through tough times by examining real fear through the lens of a story. Old just happens to have the added advantage of taking the COVID-19 pandemic into its scope, alongside the timeless subjects of aging and family, and giving audience members and actors alike an exciting way to cope with the fears of today. You can experience this summer thrill ride for yourself, as Old is currently in theaters.