Gerald’s Game is now streaming on Netflix, and it’s the second consecutive Stephen King screen adaption to deliver the thrilling goods this fall (a third, 1922, is on the way later this month). If you haven’t read the novel, Game follows a husband and wife named Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie (Carla Gugino) who’ve lost any semblance of passion in their marriage. We meet them as they commence a weekend getaway at a secluded vacation home. In an attempt to rekindle the flames with a little kink, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed and starts role-playing a rape fantasy that his wife does not consent to. She kicks him off, but before he can set her free, Gerald drops dead of a heart attack. Unable to slip her shackles, Jessie is confronted by a hallucination of her dead husband as well as a manifestation of her subconscious self, and is forced to address past traumas so she might finally break the victimization cycle she’s been trapped in since she was a teen.
Tightly directed by Mike Flanagan (Hush, Ouija 2: Origin of Evil), Gerald’s Game achieves its excellence primarily through Gugino’s performance. “A lot of what people do who are sexually abused is, you just have to disassociate yourself from your body to an extent, because of the pain,” the actress explains. “It’s just such an emotional trauma.” To express that disassociation, Jessie’s personality splits in two as she battles between resigning herself to death and reclaiming her life from the shame of being a victim. “Many emotions you’re able to move through, but shame is one that often sticks for life,” says Gugino. “Because associated with it is the idea that you were complicit, the idea that you were a part of making something happen. When that happens so young it’s really hard to move through it.”
Vulture spoke with Gugino about how decades of experience helped her prepare for the film, why she didn’t want to shy away from the exploitative image of being a damsel in distress, what it was actually like to film that extremely graphic degloving scene, and how the dangers of living while female can feel like living in a horror movie sometimes.
Something that stuck with me about Gerald’s Game was that it felt like a horror movie for grownups.
I felt the same way when I read the script. I loved that it’s not about the [character’s] age, but it is a person who, on the outside, we think should be “beyond” this. I was realizing the other day that I’ve been acting professionally for over 30 years, and I started as a kid and it’s something I still love as much as I always have, and I am just as impassioned by it and excited by it and scared. Yet I feel equipped in a different way than I did when I began, just by the nature of experience. This script came to me somewhat late in the game, and so from the moment that I read it to the moment I was on set filming, there were two weeks — that was it. I don’t think I would have felt I could have delved in with that little time for something this kind of intense and specific, in terms of the character-splitting personalities, if I didn’t have a bunch of work under my belt over the years.
What was it about Jessie that resonated with you?
I was really taken with the same thing you were talking about. I thought, “Wow! In a proper genre story — like in a real psychological thriller with some horror elements — Stephen King decided to delve into something really deep,” which is a woman who is sexually molested by her father at a very early age. Tonally that is such a challenge, and it’s really going to have to have a filmmaker that knows exactly what he’s doing, and has a really clear vision.
And the sexual subjugation, how did that sit with you? How did you negotiate the interplay between exploitation and empowerment?
That’s such a good question, and it’s obviously a really complicated answer. What was clear was that I’m gonna be there in a négligée in handcuffs, and there’s no way of avoiding that kind of iconic damsel in distress image. That is a very pulpy image, but what was also interesting was that Bruce was topless, only in underwear, the entire time. And what’s hilarious is I don’t think I’ve ever done anything where people have actually talked about my body less. Usually there’s this thing of, “The hourglass shaped so and so — blah blah blah.” This is just like, “Oh my God! Bruce is 61 with that body! Oh, yeah. And she’s in a slip. Whatever.”
Bruce Greenwood looks amazing, if I may objectify.
I know, right? But that was the thing that really excited me and was really interesting to navigate. Because we were able to be in her head, I actually wanted to never shy away from the fact that she had chosen to be submissive for her husband. She had done all of this to try to please him, and actually one of the lines that we found in one of our rehearsals that came out of me, that wasn’t in the script, was, “I wanted to please you so badly. What a fucking stupid idea this was.” There was that moment of realization where I think so often you realize, “Oh, wait a minute. I have put aside everything. I’m not listening to me anymore. I’m doing this for that person, and that person — in this particular case — is not caring for me.”
We really wanted to have a moment where he’s maybe going to take the cuffs off, and they’re going to actually be vulnerable with each other, because I think that’s the thing — so much of it is each person being shamed and feeling inadequate and yet not wanting to share it, and that manifests differently in men and women. He becomes angry and wants to say, “What if I don’t take you out of the cuffs?” And obviously to her, that is the scariest thing she has ever heard in her life from the man that she loves the most. So I think I was interested in not ever shying away from any of those kind of images of the genre, of me in a slip, of any of that stuff, because we had the advantage in this movie of being inside her head and seeing her progress all the way.
Bruce Greenwood is so scary because he feels like the toxic charming guy you could meet in real life, who could disarm and manipulate you before you’ve really realized it.
I totally agree. And I think part of the reason he is terrifying is because in many moments when another actor might have chosen to play something on the nose and overtly terrifying, he plays it with this strange, kind of condescending glimmer of a smile. Basically I thought, “Well, this scares the shit out of me,” so therefore, that’s in the plus column.
So you’re doing this because it scares you. How do you turn yourself over to the man directing you who’s going to put you in this scary position, but also hopefully keep you safe?
The first day I got there he said, “I want you to take ownership of this script. I want you to consider this as much yours as it is mine.” I realized that this guy had such an investment in this story and such a very clear interest in this woman coming into her own power and the themes that I find interesting, which are: When we close the door to our subconscious and to those things that we don’t want to deal with, they just have more power. It’s just the nature of it, and it’s never comfortable to look at them. And what was also interesting is something I’ve found about directors. The ones that I’ve worked with that are the most collaborative are always the ones that have a very clear vision and a lot of confidence and know what they’re doing. The ones that are more defensive are actually the ones that are afraid.
As a writer and a director, he’s also really interested in mining really deep, emotional territory — making you feel it in your bones — and I think that combo is really unusual. It’s always been my belief that with very rare exceptions you can do a really great performance if you have to direct yourself, but you can’t do an extraordinary one where you have to kind of jump off the cliff creatively unless someone else has the big picture. If you’re having to keep track of that it’s a different muscle. In a way you have to kind of put yourself in someone’s hands and that’s always a tricky thing to do. But I felt in very good hands with him.
To me, the whole movie turns when you say, “If my hands pull this off, my legs better do their fucking part.” The two personalities coalesce in that moment, and it’s funny and it’s scary and it’s heroic. And that is what throws us into the degloving scene!
Oh my Lord. The degloving scene. That was so crazy! Bob Kurtzman — who made the Gerald body double — and the special effects person who did the glove came to show us on set one day. They had it on their hand as an example. The good thing is, I’m not queasy at all, but I had no idea it was going to be that brutal. Then! It actually ended up that 70 percent of it was acting, but 30 percent was genuine pain, because we needed to have the cuffs small enough that it didn’t look like it was enlarged. You know, everybody has been watching me the entire movie.
Right. Everyone has been examining the thinking, “But can she get out?”
Exactly. So basically we did it so that it was really, really hard to pull out. And I had bruises all over my back from the headboard. I had bruises all over my wrists, and they could not have offered to get me out of those cuffs more often. I think that’s the thing, because I had a crew that cared so much about making sure I was okay, I was able to say, “You know what guys? Let’s leave them on. Let me try this.” If I had felt not taken care of, that’s when you have to really watch out and make sure you don’t get hurt. But it was really brutal. It took us a long time to shoot it, and also, doing anything — I mean literally lying down in those cuffs and then trying to sit up is a feat in and of itself. I got a little bit better at it, but it took me a minute to get from lying on the bed to sitting up on the headboard.
You’re also in a slippery silk dress.
Exactly! There’s no leverage! And it was really funny, because Mike said, “We’ve got to figure out a way to cheat this, otherwise it’s just too much screen time.” And then he goes, “Actually, we definitely have to show that at least once, because then that makes you understand the position she’s in.” When we were down in Austin for Fantastic Fest for the premiere, it was actually extraordinary experience. You could hear a pin drop, and then when that degloving sequence happened I had never been in a theater and heard more people going, “Ahhhhh!!! No no!” It was crazy! And literally, I am not kidding you when I tell you a grown man with a full beard fainted. Mike was jokingly saying this was his favorite review of the whole movie.
At a time when it feels like the government itself is weaponizing against women, the idea of realizing our struggles as flat-out horror is exactly what’s called for.
[Laughs] Exactly! This should be horrifying to all of you! It’s absolutely true, and that’s the cool thing about genre. Because of the heightened elements, you can actually explore very real, profound male and female dynamics and all of those things through horror and sci-fi. These are the places we are getting to tell some of the truths.