If it isn't already clear, we're big fans of horror here at No Film School, so our Slack has been lit up lately with reactions to this year's breakout horror hit, Barbarian. From its unconventional structure to its bucking of tropes and even its unique inspirations, we've been following along.
The film just hit digital platforms, so now a new wave of viewers is descending into that creepy Airbnb basement and discovering the secrets within. What better time to check in with one of the film's stars?
We leaped at the chance to Zoom with actor Matthew Patrick Davis, who plays the Mother in the film. We talked about how he landed the role (a pickle was involved), the challenges of night shoots and prosthetics, and tips for getting into a monster's mindset.
Beware, there are spoilers for Barbarian ahead.
Ready? Grab your tape measure and let's go exploring.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I would love to know how you landed the role of Mother.
Matthew Patrick Davis: Well, it was a Zoom call, started with a Zoom call with Zach Cregger, the writer/director, and I. And then he was like, "Is this even anything you'd want to do?" And I was like, "Why? Because prosthetics are uncomfortable?" And he is like, "No, because you'd be naked, man, ass out." I was like, "What? But I'm not saying I won't be... I'll be covered some, right?"
And then he asked me to do a self-tape, which is the strangest self-tape that I've done. If I am talking to young actors, you know the self-tape game. So there was a cut scene where the Mother bites the head off of a rat. And so he asked me to grab a hot dog or something and just do that scene. He was also like, "And I hate myself for asking this, but can you take your shirt off?"
So I was in my office, I was going to grab a sausage or something, but then there were pickles in my fridge, so I grabbed a pickle. And that was the move because it gave a good proper crunch. And then it gave a good Xenomorph drool situation. And so I had towels laid out on my floor, and it looked weird. I took my shirt off, it looked weird with me in shorts. So I was just in my underwear with a weird side-light, drooling pickle juice all over my floor as my small dog, Morty, was just sitting in his bed just looking at me as if nothing was out of the normal.
And then I was like, "This is the weirdest thing to send to someone that I've only just Zoom met," but apparently that was the booker.
Georgina Campbell as Tess in 20th Century Studios’ 'Barbarian.'Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century StudiosNFS: The rest is history. How much of building the character was the prosthetics or special effects or just your movement work?
Matthew Patrick Davis: Well, so going in, I did as much work I could do on my own. And then I knew that the prosthetics would be 50% of the character as far as I could only do so much. But so much was based on what she was going to look like and how that would feel and how that would make me move.
So the prep work that I did was—I was very grateful to Zach for sending me down this dark rabbit hole. But he encouraged me to Google feral children, which are these horrific stories of abuse and captivity and of victims. Because as y'all realize by the end of the film that the Mother is not a monster, but she's a human victim. And so that allowed me to really have empathy for the character. And also there is a stunted growth that occurs when you deny someone the basic things in their formative stages. So if you don't speak to someone, if you keep them in the dark and don't speak to them, they will never learn to speak. And so it explained why the Mother is nonverbal. And they were describing these victims as two-year-olds in a 20-year-old's body now. And so that kind of described perhaps Mother's internal state. That when she's attacking someone or bashing someone's head against the wall, it's kind of like a tantrum or it's like a kid throwing their blocks off the table. It's not just someone who loves a-murdering.
And then the prosthetics happened, and then that brought me 50% all the way there. What a greater gift to immerse yourself into a role than to sit in a makeup chair for four hours and watch yourself slowly transform into someone that looks completely different than you. So it was the combination of those two things.
Behind the scenes of 'Barbarian'Credit: Yana Blajeva/Courtesy of 20th Century Studios
NFS: Was there anything specific about playing a female character that you had to think about? I know that it is not necessarily a gendered character in that she is sort of feral, but did you have to think about that in any way?
Matthew Patrick Davis: I mean, I thought there were specific women's behavior [in] these videos that I found of these actually very depressing stories and tragic stories that I would try and replicate. And I would watch a couple of the videos as I was in the makeup chair to get me into that state. I wasn't actively thinking—it was more of the feral victim that I was thinking about, less about, "Oh, would I walk with my hips more?" I wasn't really thinking about that. I was more thinking about being in kind of an animalistic state almost.
NFS: You mentioned prepping in the chair and that process and watching videos, but was there anything additional maybe on set or in things that Zach was telling you to get you into that character every day?
Matthew Patrick Davis: Yeah, it's just the looking in the mirror is so helpful, you don't see yourself. And then also getting in those dark tunnels that were literally very dark. And so that I was aware of, that she was very familiar with those tunnels. And so between shots, I would just be running around in those tunnels, trying to feel my way through in the dark to try and get very comfortable with them. And then I was also aware that she had been watching this weird video on a loop for seemingly her entire life, this breastfeeding video. So I watched that a lot before shooting and also tried to mimic exactly how the woman in the video did all of those behaviors as I was forcibly breastfeeding Justin Long.
NFS: That was going to be my next question. In terms of what the character did, was there anything that you pushed to go further, or were you ever at a point, "Maybe we shouldn't do this. Is it too weird?"
Matthew Patrick Davis: All of the wild bonkers things are in the script, so there's no need to push anything further. I was nervous because I was a huge Justin Long fan ever since he was on the show Ed or in Galaxy Quest. I've just been a fan of his forever. So when I knew he was cast, I was very excited. And then I was also like, "We're going to have to do some weird things together. I hope he's chill and cool."
And luckily, he is very nice and very chill and cool. And we were both committed and in it 100%. But then we also kept a sense of humor between takes at the kind of absurdity of what we were doing. And for instance, that cut scene that I described about the audition with the pickle, we shot that with the rat where I baby bird, a rat head from my mouth into his open mouth in the middle of a pandemic. And so I was just like, "Are you all right for this? You okay." And he is like, "Well, it's definitely the grossest thing, so we have to do it." That was just his attitude.
Georgina Campbell as Tess in 20th Century Studios’ 'Barbarian.'Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century StudiosNFS: What was the most challenging part of the performance?
Matthew Patrick Davis: I think the night shoots, because I mean, I was ass out. I was nearly nude, and so it was cold. And there was also one night where we had to do a lot in a short amount of time. We had to shoot the shots of me post-fall on the ground with Tess on top of me, and then me waking back up, and then me killing Justin. And then that whole final scene that is the emotional crux of my character, we got maybe one take at that or two takes because the sun was coming up. The Bulgarian summer nights are very short, and so we had to do a lot in a small amount of time. So that was a stressful time. And I left that night thinking, "Oh man, I hope we got it." But luckily, but Zach, he was like, "Trust me, I would not move on if we didn't get it." And then watching the movie, we got it. Yeah, it's just funny. In the experience of it, you're completely filled with anxiety and worry.
NFS: Yeah. Night shoots are never fun. I'm sure it's also very stressful that you're head-to-toe nude, but also in prosthetics, so I can't even imagine how difficult that was. What have been your favorite reactions to the character?
Matthew Patrick Davis: I'm so grateful that it got a theatrical release, so I got to be in packed audiences where they literally scream with their mouths when I come on screen. I mean, that final whoosh when she jumps off the tower, that is a pretty delightful reaction. And that could be—I just love how Zach and the movie know what they're doing. It is humorous, and that is okay that it is humorous, and it's humorous in the right way.
Georgina Campbell as Tess in 20th Century Studios' 'Barbarian.'Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century StudiosNFS: You're nonverbal as Mother. What advice would you have for other actors who are having to embody a character that isn't able to express emotions in a traditional way?
Matthew Patrick Davis: Well, it made memorizing my lines pretty easy. "Wait, is this ba-ba-ba or ba-ba?"
But despite the fact that she isn't communicating verbally, she still is communicating, and she still is communicating emotions. So all of that. Anytime when I begin a project where I can go down a research hole, that is very helpful. Whether I'm doing a Shakespeare play and doing all the research into the time and into the language and all of that stuff, or something like this where I'm researching dark, depressing, YouTube rabbit holes about feral children, that's all just filling yourself up so you're ready, whether you're on stage or on set—to then forget all that, but have it still there and deliver.
NFS: Was there anything else that you wanted to talk about in terms of your experience, or advice for anybody making a movie?
Matthew Patrick Davis: Advice? I would just say to say yes to things and make things. Don't wait for the phone to ring, don't wait for opportunities. Try to find agency in this business where you don't have a lot of agency. So for me, when I found songwriting and started writing musicals that I would be in and put up at a comedy theater, that was something I was not getting paid anything for, but it was something that I had agency over. And then that has now resulted in actual paid work. So just do things. Do all the things.