Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Magic City, Watchmen) and Natasha Calis play father and daughter in Lionsgate Films' horror movie, The Possession, inspired by real events surrounding an antique wooden box. And as with many films of the genre, there were bizarre occurrences on the set. Light bulbs popped, there was an occasional creepy feeling, and The Possession director Ole Bornedal told us in an interview at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con that just days after the film wrapped, everything burned down. "The storage house where we had the dibbuk box, all the props turned to ashes seven days after we wrapped," revealed Bornedal. "The Vancouver police department still doesn't know the cause of the fire. And perhaps it's just a coincidence, but..."
The official synopsis: "Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Stephanie Brenek (Kyra Sedgwick) see little cause for alarm when their youngest daughter Em becomes oddly obsessed with an antique wooden box she purchased at a yard sale. But as Em's behavior becomes increasingly erratic, the couple fears the presence of a malevolent force in their midst, only to discover that the box was built to contain a dibbuk, a dislocated spirit that inhabits and ultimately devours its human host."
Teaming up to talk about the horror thriller, Morgan and Calis discussed what sets this film apart from others of the genre and bonding as father and daughter.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Natasha Calis The Possession Interview
Why were you interested in this project?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "It's a great script, really great director, and it kind of came down to that for me. Ole [Bornedal] sent me the script with a really great note, and then along with that after I read the script he sent me Natasha's audition because, you know, for me that's sort of the key to the whole movie. The only way it works is if you have this extraordinary young actor, and I saw her audition and I was sort of blown away. I called Ole and said yeah."
"But there's a real story. I mean it's not one of these horror movies that have been coming out in the last 20 years. I think it's really a throwback to The Exorcist, The Omen, movies that had stories where you become invested in the characters and then when the bad things happen, it's genuinely scary. It's not just to show blood to show blood, it's not that kind of film at all."
Natasha Calis: "You connect with the family and you can really feel for them. And when bad stuff happens you feel as if it's your daughter."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Or whatever." [laughing]
Natasha Calis: [Laughing] "A child. A child is what I was going to say."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "You're right, what Natasha said. But it's true, I think you become invested in these characters and so when the scares do happen, they're genuinely scary. And it's mostly practical; there's no special effects so there's a more of an element to realism I think there. And Ole is so good. I don't know if you're familiar with his work, but the guy knows how to put a camera in the right place, which is, you'd think that that's kind of a normal deal, that a director should know that, but they honestly don't. Between him and his d.p. I think the look of this film is sort of so..."
Natasha Calis: "It's unique. It's sets it aside from other horror movies."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "It will entice you I think as a viewer. And then hopefully we do our jobs as actors and make this sort of relatable for everybody. But you know I think it all starts with the script. You know, any project starts with the script. I haven't seen the film yet so I suck at that part of it - but Natasha has - but I think with the script that we had and with what I know Ole was doing, the stuff I saw as we were shooting and obviously the trailer, I feel like, again, not having seen the movie, but we made the movie that we thought we were making which is a rare thing - it really is. I've done some real turkeys lately and, you know, you get a script and you're like, 'Oh, I can make this. This is going to be okay. We're going to do something with this,' and then you see the final result and you're like, 'What happened? Where did we go wrong?' And with this I truly think it not only translated from the page but it may have really helped it because of the performances and all that."
Do you have to be a believer to get into this movie?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I'm a skeptic, I'm a big skeptic with all this stuff but with that being said, don't mock the box, man, you know? It sort of freaked me out a little bit."
Natasha Calis: "Crazy stuff happened on the set, like weird, freaky incidents."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "We sort of were open to that. You know, when you're in the middle of doing a movie like this you're sort of open to believing the weird because you're sort of in this mode. But, there was some stuff that went on, light bulbs exploding, it was just like, 'Wait a second...'"
Natasha Calis: "This cold, eerie feeling, and all of a sudden this light bulb explodes."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Yeah, it was weird. I knew as much as, I guess, probably anybody else about this. If you just go on the computer you can figure out where the story is traced to this box that was sold on eBay, and you can dig a little bit deeper. The people that have owned the box kind of explain what has happened to them, and obviously we take some creative freedoms with this to make it probably scarier. That being said however though, the people that have had this box and the stuff that's happened to them...I'm not going to risk that! I'm not going to play with that. So I remember at some point the guy that owns the box wanted to come to the set and bring the box and I was like, 'Absolutely not!'"
Natasha Calis: "Do not bring the box!"
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I do not want to be around that box."
Natasha Calis: "I wouldn't want to risk it."
Why does he still have it? Why doesn't he burn it or something?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: [Laughing] "Why does he still have it? I think he's waiting for this movie to come out and he's going to put it back on eBay or something. Who knows? But some people kind of look for that. Not us."
Natasha Calis: "The like living life on the edge."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Is that what it is?"
Natasha Calis: "That's what it is."
Natasha, how challenging both physically and emotionally was this role?
Natasha Calis: "Emotionally and physically it was pretty tiring. I did all my stunts; I was very lucky because I love doing those. We had a great stunt coordinator and stunt double for me, and they would always demonstrate what I was about to do before each scene. And, it was really fun. It was quite draining and there were some hard scenes that we did that we all went through, but in the end I learned so much and it was an amazing experience."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Man, that was such a solid, prepared answer."
Natasha Calis: [Laughing] "I wasn't prepared, I'm just winging it."
How tough was it for you two to bond as dad and daughter?
Natasha Calis: "Horrible. He was awful. You can't bond with him. No, we got along really really well."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Yeah, we still talk. We did this movie what, two years ago?"
Natasha Calis: "A year and a half ago."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "A year and a half ago."
Natasha Calis: "We still talk."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I talk. I don't know, once a month, at least, if not more."
Natasha Calis: "We really got along well."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "The little girl... I keep calling you guys little girls and I probably shouldn't, you're not, and I apologize, but it's Natasha and the other girl, Madison Davenport, that played my daughters in this, and we spent a lot of time together. And I think one of the things that makes this movie work is certainly the relationship between the parents, and especially the father and the daughters. I knew that kind of going into it. I knew that I really had to figure out how to be these girls' best friend, and kind of mentor them along and be a kind of a father figure on the set and keep things light because it's such a heavy, heavy thing. So there was a lot of joking and I did a lot of pranks on them."
Natasha Calis: "I got you back, too."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Yeah. [Laughing] And I paid for their college with the swear jar. We had a great relationship and I kind of want to give all the credit to Natasha, your mom and Madison's mom. I think that's where little young actors, not little, young actors kind of fall apart is the parenting. They have great parents and we hung out a lot. We had a really good time and I think that shows onscreen. I mean, again, not having seen it but I felt like when we were doing our stuff, doing our scenes together, and she surprised me so much with her performance, the places she had to go. I was just talking earlier today about where do you get this kind of life experience to pull this off. This is one of the sweetest people I've ever met in my life and this evil and where she got it from... I mean there were some truly scary moments and I was worried about her as her friend that you've got to dial this back. You're not going to recover from this. I don't want you to be some kind of method actor, so in between takes, she'd be in tears, literally in tears from doing the scene and I would have to get her out of wherever that head space was."
Natasha Calis: "We had little things that we'd do, you know, little jokes."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I'd sit in on school with them. They had school on set so I'd go and..."
Natasha Calis: "You did?"
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Yeah, I did that day in the hospital."
Natasha Calis: "Oh yeah, at the hospital, yeah. You learned some math."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "You guys weren't even doing school, you were in there screwing around."
Natasha Calis: "I lost my voice a few times in fact doing all the screaming in the exorcism scenes, so really in school I wouldn't be talking much"
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Some of those scenes were really [intense]. The exorcism in particular was very intense."
Natasha Calis: "Draining."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "There wasn't a lot of light moments in it because you're dealing with a family that's divorced and the parents aren't really liking each other very much."
Natasha Calis: "And the kids are having a hard time with that. They're very close to their family."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Yeah. And so they're kind of getting shuttled between mother and [father], and so everything was sort of heavy. And then, of course, when the deal the dibbux box comes into play, it kind of reached a fever pitch of dreary and scariness so it was a hard movie to do in that respect. But again, I think I've got to give all the credit to you. I think I owe you on this one, kid. You really, she really nailed it. I'm really, really, really proud of her."
Ole said he took one of the rings from the set and is kind of second-guessing that decision. Did you guys take any souvenirs?
Natasha Calis: "I did that, too. I did."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I didn't take anything. Nothing."
Natasha Calis: "I got the ring. They had a whole bunch of rings that they would like switch out. I guess some of them would get damaged, but I got to take home one. I'm not scared of it. I mean, it's a prop, it was just made..."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "You say that now."
Natasha Calis: "It's too small for me now, but I would wear it."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Keep all your stuff."
Natasha Calis: "It's on my shelf. I mean, it's a good memory. I'm not going to forget this experience; it was such an amazing learning experience."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: [Laughing] "You learned from the best, kid."
The director also mentioned fact he let you guys have a little breathing room on this and take your time. Do you feel like that added to your performances?
Natasha Calis: "Yeah, absolutely. We had a lot of freedom."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "A lot of freedom. It's always good as an actor, especially if you know your characters. And it was really easy to play the dad, so there was a lot of stuff we did. Actually, almost everything that you and I had together, we kind of riffed on."
Natasha Calis: "Yeah, we did improv."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "...and sort of go other places and just see where it went, and Ole would just let us go. One of the great things I like about European film directors is they have a sense of that, more so than most American directors that I've worked. [They] let you kind of have a little bit of freedom and they're not reining you in and making you stay verbatim on the script. That's a pain in the ass anyway."
Natasha Calis: "[He wanted it] as natural as possible."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Sometimes. Whether or not it's used or not, who knows? But you're able to kind of get into these scenes and characters much easier. And I think especially with the father-daughter relationship that we had, it allowed a sort of a levity, I think, to it all."
Natasha Calis: "A playfulness."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "A little bit of playfulness, too, yeah. But really it helped a lot, and God knows if he used any of it."
Natasha Calis: "He did."
He was also telling us you came up with the idea in your audition that it was a 'she' possessing you. Where did that come from?
Natasha Calis: "I honestly don't know."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "It's that fricken brain you've got."
Natasha Calis: "In my callback I had prepared lines and he wouldn't use them. He took me on this little journey and he really used my imagination well. At one point he said, 'Okay, now I want to talk to Em. I've got to know you. I want to talk to Emily now.' And so he was asking me questions and he said, 'What is this thing doing inside of you?' I said she wanted to live again. So I mean I just became my character and that's just what happened."
How did become involved with the project in the first place?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I had seen the script with a letter from Ole - 'We'd love you to do this role' - and I watched a couple of his films, and then I saw one of her earlier auditions that he had sent on a dvd. I watched that and then I also kind of helped get Kyra [Sedgwick] involved in it. Once I said yes, I knew I needed to get somebody cool to be my wife and I helped with that. And that was it."
"It's so rare that you kind of see a genre film that has a real story to it. It was, frankly, it was kind of refreshing to see. Normally I hear 'horror script is coming your way' and I don't even read it. It's just not what I want to do right now I guess. But when I read this, though, I was kind of amazed. It just reminded me of the movies that scared the crap out of me when I was younger that they haven't made in a long time."
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Like Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary's Baby, you know, those kind that were seeped in reality so you bought into it a lot easier. And I felt this kind of had that. I really cared about the characters and, again, I think the key for me was, 'Look, I get it, I see you what you want to do here,' I talked to Ole on the phone, 'But unless you have the right little girl here, this is all going to be all for naught. We're just spinning our wheels here, the audience is not going to buy it, I'm not going to buy it.' I saw her early audition, I think it was the one she was just talking about with Ole just pressing little weird buttons as he does. And I showed Hilarie [Burton], my girl, I was like, 'You've got to see this little actor,' calling you little, but you were littler then, you've grown like six inches since I last saw you. But I saw her do this and I was like this is one of those rare things. I've worked with a lot of younger actors and there's very few that come along like [this]. Like I remember when I first saw Dakota Fanning, I'm like, 'Where does that come from? How do you have this kind of ability? Where do you pull all that from?' And she had that same thing. I just said, I'm in.' Once I saw her that was it for me. 'I wanna be her dad! I want to help her with this whole demon thing.'"
You've tackled so many different genres and roles on TV and in films, what gets you interested at this point?
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "I just want to do different things. Diversity, I guess. I want to be able to challenge myself. It would have been really easy to do, for instance after Grey's Anatomy people just wanted me to do romantic love-interest things. And then I got lucky enough to go to the complete opposite and do Watchmen, and then all the scripts I got were sort of the action genre, I guess, so that's all the scripts you get. You get 30 scripts and they're all sort of the same deal and then you just wait for something different. Magic City was completely different. It was like the first adult role I felt like I've done in my whole life."
"This role, I hadn't ever planned on doing I guess a horror movie per se, but it didn't read like that; it read like a father trying to save his daughter. And that's how we played it. I don't think we played it for the big jump scares in the end. Seeing the trailer, you can see where we're going with this movie, but I think at its heart is it's just different characters. I just want to be able to push myself as an actor, and at some point I'd love to direct. I think that's kind of my next thing that I would like to do."
"But I had so much fun acting and getting the opportunity to work with someone like Natasha is the perfect example of why I love doing what I do. Because there's days when I'm like, 'What am I doing? You've got to find a new line of work,' because for every Natasha, there's 10 turkeys out there - and I've worked with them. That can be a little hard sometimes, working with people that don't have, I guess, an appreciation for what we do because we're lucky to be sitting here talking to you. I know that; I'm old enough and I've been around a long time, good, bad and ugly, and now that I've had this opportunity in the last eight years to do some stuff, I'm always looking for something a little bit different, something that will push me. It's real easy to do the same character over and over again, that's just not what I want to do. I take a lot of chances and some of them turn out horribly. It's just the nature of the beast."
Reading Watchmen now, it's always your voice that comes to mind.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan: "Thank you. I'm incredibly proud of that film. Especially when you come here, when you come to Comic Con. Look, every now and again my ego could use a little bit of a boost, and coming to Comic Con is the best place in the world for that."
"God bless Watchmen, and I know that Zack [Snyder's] going to be here tomorrow. I'm excited to see him and talk to him. I haven't read these new comic books yet but I hear they're really good, these prequels. I hear they're fantastic. I was sort of not on board with that whole thing and a little worried about it because, you know, of course, [Alan] Moore's not into it and [Dave] Gibbons isn't doing it, but I hear they've done a really good job with it."
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The Possession hits theaters on August 31, 2012.