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Logan Browning on the Joys of Going Through Hell for The Perfection

Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images for Netflix

The best way to watch the new movie The Perfection, currently streaming on Netflix, is to approach it with as little plot information as possible. The horror flick has psychosexually charged string duets, lavish gowns, and instances of ritual torture, and it’s better if the finer details of those points are left unsaid. But one thing you can walk in knowing is that Logan Browning gives a heroic performance as Lizzie, a 20-something cellist who has reached the pinnacle of international fame when she meets Charlotte (Allison Williams in another thrilling genre role), a prodigy who preceded her at her elite conservatory. Together this pair of savants walks a twisted path of rivalry, obsession, and revenge that amounts to epic breakdowns and cathartic scenes of — well, we won’t give it away here. (Seriously, stop reading if you haven’t watched the movie yet.)

Creating The Perfection was a somewhat transformative experience for Browning, who says the process of wading through onscreen sex and violence and hallucinogens with Williams and Richard Shepard, the co-writer and director, was a deeply collaborative one. As Lizzie, the Dear White People actress winds her way from radiantly confident to bloodied and traumatized. In her final form, she pays homage to the landscape of exploitation films that preceded this movie, helping to turn a salacious subgenre into unconventionally satisfying art. Vulture sat down with Browning before The Perfection’s release to talk about the right way to shoot a bedroom scene, the trouble with just feeling “happy to be here,” and the healing power of vengeance cinema.

You go through a whole lot of hell in this movie, and I assume a lot of that was right on the page for you to see. So what made you say yes to Richard Shepard for this movie?
When I first got the script, I went in cold. I had no idea what this film was going to be about, and the first couple of pages felt like something familiar to me. You know, I’m like, “Oh, this is Whiplash. It’s Black Swan. I get exactly what this movie is. And I love it! I love this movie. Can’t wait.” And as I’m turning the pages, I get to a point early on where something happens and I realize I have no idea how the story is going to recover. I just do not understand it. That was so intriguing to me. I never stopped turning the page.

I was so fascinated not just by how the plot continues to shift but how these two characters are fully developed. When they first meet, they have this mutual respect. They’re both enamored with each other. There’s an obsession.

Shepard said this was a colorblind casting process but that when you came on board with Allison Williams he wanted to be in conversation with you both about how having an interracial pairing would affect the narrative — especially given the sexual and power dynamics in the story. How was that collaborative process?
Richard was immensely collaborative from the moment of prep to play to post. To be honest, in fear of sounding naïve, when I sat down I unfortunately didn’t even consider the fact that this movie could take on a tonal shift with me as a brown girl if certain things weren’t addressed. When I looked at this role, what I appreciated about it was that this girl didn’t have a label at all on the page. Luckily, I was in collaboration with a mind like Allison, who, because of her prior experience in a film like Get Out, was primed for the kinds of commentary that would follow an interracial couple. Trying to avoid this being a white-savior film was a whole thing we had to address.

When Richard cast me, what I really appreciated was that I don’t usually see someone who looks like me in this kind of a role with so many different layers — even playing the cello. Seeing someone who looks like me playing the cello can broaden the minds of so many people in a similar way to having Misty Copeland be this superstar of dance right now. It’s actually a refreshing thought because a film isn’t just what we make. It’s what people see, and we were cognizant of all that going into it.

A movie like this has to walk a tightrope in how it presents women. The female body can of course be subjected to a lot of gross punishment in genre films, but our bodies are also instruments of vengeance. The Perfection manages to walk that line between exploitation and empowerment really well. How did you set boundaries for your performance while pushing yourself to the limit?
I think what I’ve found very thrilling and liberating was the character going to extreme places in the film. Emotionally, physically, I just relinquished myself to it. I just let go because I had trust. I felt trust with Allison and Richard to where I could be completely comfortable and not have to hide or shy away from any of the themes we were exploring, whether that was me losing my mind on the bus or us being sensual in the bedroom. I felt really comfortable and confident.

And talking about the bedroom scene, it was not exploitative because it wasn’t when we shot it. It was one of the most comfortable experiences I’ve ever had, to be honest, because it was the most minimal crew that needed to be in there. Besides our DP holding the camera and Richard directing us, nobody else was in the room except Allison and myself. No one was at the monitor! I think that sounds very normal, like the way things should go, and it’s just not always [the case]. Strangely enough, you’ll see like eight or ten people in a room who “need to be there,” and it’s like, Do you really?!

Obviously, I want to see more women behind the camera to tell these very intimate, terrifying stories that involve our bodies, but it’s important too that we have men who take care to handle them respectfully, male filmmakers who learn to shift the gaze in their own projects.
It’s very important. Every time I go to any kind of women’s-empowerment meeting or conversation, I’m always wondering where the men are in the room. Because yes, we can do it on our own, but we would love allies, and Richard is that.

And he had to clear the edit of the sex scene with both of you, right? You were able to give feedback?
Yes, which I so appreciated but also asked for. It was important for me because my family really supports me in everything I do, and I want to be comfortable with the things I put out. I know the kind of art I want to be a part of, and when I watch that sequence, I love it. I have a visceral emotional reaction because of how beautifully it’s shot, how it’s going back and forth with the cello and the dancing. I just think it’s so beautiful, and I was really proud of myself actually for coming in with a clear idea of how I wanted to be a part of telling this story.

When we meet Charlotte at the beginning of the movie, she already has a strong resolve in place, but we see Lizzie’s emotional journey from start to finish. And it is a wild journey that takes you through a lot of character stages. Tell me about really sinking into that heroine role.
I got to enjoy the ride and go moment to moment, feeling like I got to do a million different films and a million different characters. It was really rewarding. Even getting to play the revenge of it all was so grossly satisfying because it was just so cathartic to release the tension I felt I had built up —being in the film and experiencing all of these things fictionally but then thinking about all the real-world experiences that were going on before the script was written, during filming, and even now.

Yeah, with headlines like “The War on Women” flashing across cable news shows.
Yeah, I’ll probably never forget how cathartic it felt to play the badass moments, because I felt like kind of a superhero in the sense of fighting back for times I had been wronged and for everyone in this world who had been wronged and had these experiences. So, yes, I just fucking loved that.

Did having this experience — which sounds like it was so collaborative and where you really got to advocate for yourself on set and shape the story — affect your approach to work going forward?
It’s funny. Going into this project, I felt deserving, but more so I felt grateful. When you feel immensely grateful for something, you kind of go with the flow more. You don’t want to push as much because you’re just so happy to be there, and it’s almost a little disheartening when I think about that — that idea that I could ever put that on myself. Just be happy to be here? Are you kidding, Logan? So I think it was an interesting place for me to be because being around the group of people I was around, I was pushed to think bigger. There are scenes in the movie that weren’t in the script that were added to ensure that Lizzie’s story was told fully, and that was very important to Richard and Allison and myself. I know I learned a big lesson in this film that it’s okay to expect the best and look for the best in every role. The Lizzies of the world deserve their moment to shine and their revenge.

Logan Browning Went Through Hell for The Perfection