“(Improvisation) adds a whole layer of difficulty to being an actor in a movie. I’ve wanted to do that.”
I recently got to talk to actress Heather Langenkamp (most famous for her role as Nancy Thompson in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series) about her new movie, Home. It’s a supernatural horror movie, but the most interesting aspect of it is that it revolves around a family strained by religious tension. Langenkamp plays a woman who has started a completely different chapter in her life, having come out as gay, despite her religious background, and married a woman named Samantha (Samantha Mumba). The two of them move into a new house with their young daughter, Tia (Alessandra Shelby Farmer), who is troubled by behavioral issues. On top of everything, Heather’s grown and fundamentally religious daughter, Carrie (Kerry Knuppe), moves in. Though they share a mother-daughter bond, the lives they have made for themselves are incompatible, and Carrie is disapproving of her mother’s sexuality because of her religious upbringing. This is all established before we even find out the house is haunted, providing us with plenty of tension before ghosts even come in and start making things spooky. Home is distinguished solely by a very specific premise, and in that way we receive a very relatable and interesting set of characters to follow. Their uniqueness is compelling, but their realness is as well, with many scenes being directed with an improvised approach to the dialogue.
Playback:stl: You’ve previously done horror from a young person’s perspective, so I was wondering if it was different taking on the parental role in this kind of story.
Heather Langenkamp: Oh, that’s a good question. Let me think about how I would approach that.
So my character, in general, doesn’t really have to expose herself to the horror much. I mean, she’s living a pretty normal life and some strange things are going on, but they’re not terribly disconcerting because I actually leave my house to go on this trip. So, in a way, I feel like the horror only affects me at the very end. In that way, it’s completely different from the previous roles where my character was always kind of face to face with the horror and having to figure out, kind of, how to manage it. [laughs]
You know, to beat it and get rid of it. And in this movie, Kerry is the one who actually has to do that part of the heavy lifting. And I think she does a really great job with that. I feel like I kind of got let off easy, I guess [laughs], because I don’t really have to endure all of that struggle. That’s definitely a lot harder, as an actor, to do that kind of work, I think.
PBSTL: Is that something that attracted you to the role, to kind of take it from more of a drama perspective where you’re working out the differences between you and your daughter?
HL: Yeah, I liked that. I liked the relationship. There are a lot of interesting social issues that are brought up. My character had once been quite religious and had been a missionary. My character had changed so much that when her daughter sees her again, there’s a little bit of tension because of that change. My character pretty much escaped that very strict religiosity and has taken a different path, which was to marry another woman and have a child and kind of restart her life altogether. So, I found that aspect very interesting in the story.
And then how do you reintroduce yourself to your daughter after so many years? She hasn’t really seen you make these changes. It was an interesting and awkward kind of moment. I think that was probably what propelled me to take the part, just that interesting relationship with a grown-up daughter.
PBSTL: Was it challenging at all? Because normally you’re doing all this horror stuff, but this was really relying on you being a parent.
HL: Yeah. You know, I think as we actresses get older, we’re kind of obsessed, many of us, with staying young and being able to play the ingénue as long as we possibly can and figuring out how to lengthen our careers in Hollywood when older women aren’t particularly valued. And so becoming a mother is actually one of the— I guess it’s one of the roles that’s still available to a lot of us as we get older. I find these parts very challenging and also interesting, but often they’re not written that way. They’re written kind of like, the mom’s making the coffee in the background, and I was hoping that wouldn’t be the way that our director, Frank Lin, was going to have it. And I don’t think he did. He had us all be very active in the storyline.
PBSTL: Speaking of Frank, I assume he approached you for this role?
HL: Yeah, Frank approached me, and the producer Jeff Lam. They approached me, and I think they know my manager from a previous film project. At this point, I’m taking a lot of these roles. When I’m asked to do an interesting role that has some meat to it, I pretty much say yes a lot, because I feel that it’s important to keep my acting muscles flexing as much as possible. So, I said yes.
The second interesting thing that really compelled me to do it was that it’s one of these films that has a lot of improvisation. So the director presents us—and the writer presented us—with more a script that was a series of scenarios that have kind of a basic outline and some ideas for ways the lines can go, but basically, once the director called action, we were completely free to improvise our scenes with the other person in the role. So in a way that’s one of the most difficult things as an actor to do, is to improvise, because not only do you have to think about what you’re doing, but you have to think about what you’re going to say and you’ve got to think of actions you’re going to put together with your words. It adds a whole layer of difficulty to being an actor in a movie. I’ve wanted to do that, and I’ve heard about experiences with other directors who do that style of work, so I felt like it was a good time to try that.
It was really difficult because you do one take and they’re like, “Okay, take two,” and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what did I say? What did I do?” It really required you to be on high alert, just all the time, to be very aware of what you’re doing and what you’re saying and to not be self-conscious about it is really tough. That’s why, when I first saw the screening, I was really worried that you would see my brain working too hard. In some places I do see that, and I hope the audience doesn’t notice it like I do.
PBSTL: Well, I will say, I think one of the most well-done parts of the movie is the realistic approach to the dialogue. There did seem to be a lot of ad-libbing, but just because you can tell when it’s not rehearsed. It’s not scripted.
HL: Well, some people really like it. I mean, I think sometimes it’s successful. But it can bomb. I mean, it can really go the other way. Ad-libbing can be really sloppy and not interesting to listen to. Even our reality shows that we’ve become so used to watching, they’re not that much ad-libbed. They give people some structure, you know, what to talk about and jumping off points. You hope that you aren’t just blabbing. You’re walking a very fine line between being very natural, which can be kind of boring, or being concise and getting the point across in as few words as possible and still be natural.
So, in my mind, that’s what I’m thinking about all the time in trying to improvise. And, of course, you’ve thought about the arc of the scene and where you’re going to get dramatic or where you’re going to get angry. It can’t be different all the time. There has to be something that anchors you. So we would often talk about, you know, “we’re going to follow this path through the scene.” You can’t do the scene totally wild and they’re not expecting it. I mean, you can [laughs], but then everyone gets thrown for a loop and might burst out laughing or something. So it’s very hard. Something we all practiced in acting school was doing improvisation. I’ve always loved it. I love comedy improvisation, and this is a chance to do dramatic improvisation. So that, to me, was maybe the most fun part of working on this film.
PBSTL: Well you pulled it off pretty well. I thought it was one of the movie’s strengths.
HL: Thank you! You’re the first person who’s seen the movie besides me, in my world. So thank you for saying that. I don’t know anybody who’s seen it yet, so I’m going to take your opinion and keep it close to my heart because I’m happy to hear someone say that.
PBSTL: Well, I’m glad!
Okay, well let me jump to another topic. I guess this is sort of similar. There’s a lot of family drama, and I thought that was another good thing about the movie. A lot of times in horror movies, there is family drama but it seems like it’s more of a segue to get to the scary parts, where it seemed like this was more about the tension between each member of this family and their difficulty in trying to work together as a unit.
HL: That’s a good point. The interesting part of this family that I found really compelling, in our modern age, was that it was a new family—a lesbian couple that has a daughter. Then my daughter arrives and she’s very religious, and so here we have a lesbian couple and they have a very fundamentally religious 20-year old who’s very devout and serious about her faith.
So that tension we found really, really interesting. We tried to bring that to light as much as we could without it being about, you know, “God is going to punish these lesbians.” [laughs] That was something that at least I thought about when watching the horror evolve was that, wow, if we don’t play this very carefully it might look like a morality play about how these bad things are happening to this lesbian couple because of their sexual orientation or something. So that was always something in that back of my mind. I thought that would be a terrible outcome if that’s what people thought.
So how do you combat that? Well, you just have to be as real as possible and you have to make the “morality play” part of it second to the family tension and the reality of that. The true fact is that this supernatural force is coming into this home, and that alone is what the horror is all about.
But I don’t know. I would like to know people’s opinion about if it comes off as a moral tale. I don’t know that we intended it to be that way, but I think the first time I read the script I thought, wow, they have kind of a powerful message in the way that I don’t know if people want it to be that way. I don’t know if people would receive it well if it were like that. I don’t know. It’s a complicated thing, it’s really complicated.
PBSTL: I will say that the one thing that kind of keeps it from being a morality-type thing or judging the lesbian couple is that the relationship seems so real. It seems like a genuine, caring relationship and you care about that couple. So, at least in my mind, I like them. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that couple, they have a good relationship.
HL: Well, Lew Temple played that great character who comes to visit and finds out that they’re a lesbian couple, and it’s kind of his reaction that I think helps the movie move along in a direction that—like his surprise and then his, not amusement, but the way he takes it so well is how, I think, we all expect the audience to take it, too. Like, you can be a little surprised when you see it, but then you realize this is the world that we live in today and can accept it and just look at the people for who they are.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I’ll be curious to see, frankly, if there are some that interpret it in a more moralistic way. I’ll be interested to see if that happens. I mean like a conservative-moralistic way, because I think liberal people have a set of morals that includes all people and, of course, all sexual orientations. But there are some in our country who don’t, and so I’d be curious to see what their reaction to the film is.
PBSTL: Another thing is that everyone’s so different. The characters and the actors are all so different. You’ve got religious differences and age differences and race differences, and yet it seems like a real family. Was there any difficulty in making them seem real?
HL: No, I mean, Samantha (Mumba) is such a lovely person and she is such a warm human being—and I’ve never played a woman in a couple like that, so it was new for me, but I don’t know if it was new for her, but we just decided that being loving to another person is something that comes very naturally, I think, to both of us. It wasn’t hard to think about having a deep love for somebody who really was just such a great person anyway. It wasn’t a stretch at all. I’ve had to be the wife or the girlfriend of people who were less warm and friendly, and sometimes it can be tough.
It was a very great experience for me to actually portray a character that was a lesbian, because we had to hug and we had to be touching and close together, and to me, as an actress, it was a really great opportunity to do something that I had never done before. Just like if I was going to play tennis or something in a movie, too [laughs]. There are actions involved in that, and feelings and intentions that you have that, as long as you can keep building on them as an actor, you get better as an actor. | Nic Champion