For fans of Don Mancini’s three-decade, seven-film strong Chucky franchise, the upcoming Child’s Play reboot might seem like some noncanonical tomfoolery. First off, there’s no Don. For the first time in the franchise’s history, he didn’t pen the script for a movie about Charles Lee. Furthermore, there’s no Brad Dourif, the long-trenchant voice of young Mr. Ray. Is there at least some Jennifer Tilly? you might ask. No, no there is not.
To the credit of director Lars Klevberg and writer Tyler Burton Smith, the new movie, which opens this weekend, isn’t trying to move into your house and pretend he’s your new dad. The framework of the 1988 original is still there; Aubrey Plaza plays a single mother named Karen who is just trying to make ends meet when she gifts her son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman), a defective Buddi doll that someone returned to the toy store where she works. The doll, of course, turns out to be a murderer. But this time around, instead of being possessed by the spirit of a serial killer, new Chucky (voiced by Mark Hamill) consists of some naïve AI learning all the wrong lessons about being a boy’s best friend forever. When evil Chucky figures out he can sync up with all of our cloud-connected devices, all hell breaks loose. That’s where Brian Tyree Henry’s version of detective Mike Norris comes in.
Vulture sat down with Henry, Plaza, and Bateman in advance of the not-quite-apocryphal film’s theatrical release. We wanted to know how they got involved in the 2019 resurrection of cinema’s ugliest doll, how they feel about the ever-evolving genre of horror, and where Plaza’s relentless Catwoman campaign stands.
So, how did you guys end up in Child’s Play?
Brian Tyree Henry: I was leaving L.A. I don’t know where I was going, actually.
Aubrey Plaza: Where were you going?
BTH: What were my dreams?
AP: Paint the picture for us. What were you wearing?
BTH: I remember getting the script, and I think you were already attached to it. So, once I heard [Plaza’s] name I was like boom!
You were the star power that got it off the ground, Aubrey?
AP: I guess so.
BTH: She was just the name they used to get me.
AP: I got Chucky on it also. I was really happy to get him, because I felt like he brought the whole thing together.
BTH: She was the one that made me want to join. I regret it now, but yeah [laughs]. The script was great. It said “The Kasdan Project.” It didn’t say “Child’s Play” on it. I was like, Okay, this is really good, and the characters are really great. Is my character going to make it to the end, because I’m black? Because I know that does not happen [in horror movies]. Then Chucky was in it, and I’m a huge fan of this franchise, so it was a no-brainer. [Talking to Plaza] You mean a lot to me. That’s why I did this.
AP: You mean more to me.
And you, Gabriel?
Gabriel Bateman: I just auditioned. Reading the sides, I figured out that it was [a] Chucky [movie], so I was really excited from the get-go. I got the script when I did the chemistry read with [Plaza], which was the last step of the process before they cast me.
AP: I’ll never forget it. It was a magical day.
GB: Why did you choose me? I’m still wondering to this day.
AP: Cause I wanted to ruin your life.
BTH: She is a smothering mother, though. Even on set she smothered him.
AP: My boy’s number one. He’s going to the top.
GB: She smothered me. She threatened me, attacked me.
AP: A little tough love.
Brian you have amassed a very impressive resume over the past few years, and I wondered how a venerable slasher franchise fit into that.
BTH: Horror means a lot to me. I’m a huge fan of the horror genre — like, huge — and I just remember thinking in order for horror to work, you have to act your ass off, because you have to drive the story. Like, look at every single person that was in Scream. Everyone was acting their ass off.
At the end of the day, you could get lost behind [a horror movie plot]. You could come [to Child’s Play] for the whole thing about the doll, but the human connection that’s going on in this movie is what’s really important. Everyone is seeking for somebody to give them some kind of worth, you know what I mean? And this artificial intelligence thing is happening and it’s terrifying. That human connection and getting away from our machines is what matters. And in order to bring that story together, you’ve got to bring some acting chops to it. What Gabriel especially has to do in this film is really, really difficult.
You have a really great cry, Gabriel. Is that you or did you get an assist from the makeup team?
BTH: Don’t tell her your secrets.
GB: It’s not makeup.
In a different version of this movie, Aubrey, I could very easily see you voicing Chucky.
AP: Thank you. I’ve heard that a lot.
You have a real way with sociopathy.
AP: Thank you so much. This is what I’ve been saying all along.
But Karen is more of a straight man role than we typically see you play. So what feels more like it’s stretching your range at this point? A character like Karen or a character like Lenny from Legion?
AP: Everything has its challenges, but if you really break it down with this movie, it’s about a single mom who is just doing the best she can and gives her son a doll that ends up trying to murder everyone. The stakes are really high, and I think it’s a challenge to ground something like that. It’s not actually an easy thing to do. When you’re an actor you don’t think like, Well this is just a dumb horror movie. No, you have to commit. You have to believe that it’s actually happening, which is actually really messed up.
A lot of the effects were shot in-camera for this movie, so the crazy things we see are literally happening in front of you as an actor, instead of it being some tennis ball to be CGI’d later on. So, I wanted to ask you about filming the melee in the Zed Mart where Karen works.
BTH: Oy vey. Who wants to start?
GB: I think the entire climax took two weeks to film, and everything else also took two weeks. Fifteen to 20 minutes of the film took just as long as everything else.
BTH: And I think the scene where [Plaza’s] being basically hung was her first day on set.
AP: Day one! The first take that we did was the shot of me being tied up and …
BTH: Lynched, basically.
AP: I was bound for a long time.
And were most of the effects done practically?
BTH: Oh, yeah. The way you saw it unfold is how it really happened. I don’t know if you noticed, but Lars likes to really dig in and go for it. The whole Zed Mart scene, you have all these extras and kids and all these dolls and blood. It was really a lot.
Gabriel, which scenes do you find yourself enjoying most? Going dark for some of those really emotional scenes, or, like, running around with a knife in a toy store?
GB: I feel like, in hindsight, I enjoy the idea of filming really emotional scenes, but when I’m actually filming them, it’s not enjoyable because I’m in that mindset. What I really enjoyed filming at the time was all the stunts. Those were really fun.
Does filming an intense scene give you a little bit of a hangover?
GB: Yeah. For me, specifically, I kind of get light-headed.
BTH: He really digs in.
Brian, you were saying earlier you learned a lot from Gabriel.
BTH: I did, actually. To be so young and be able to have that kind of access to emotion like that. And you know, all of the [other] kids [on set] were nightmares — every single one of them — ‘cause they’re teenagers! You know what I mean? And to carry that and be the anchor for it was really impressive.
And if he got on my nerves I just remembered that I got to slam him on the floor when it came time. That was so much fun! I was just like YEAH! But that was the whole thing on set, you know. What we’re doing is really crazy and sometimes, often, dangerous. Like, more often than not dangerous. But we were with each other and that made it so much more enjoyable.
Aubrey, I was reading an interview with you recently, and you talked about how much you enjoyed producing your own work and having more control in that way. But you were not a producer on Child’s Play, right?
AP: I wasn’t, although I tried very hard to be on set. I actually went into Andy’s bedroom and used a crayon and wrote out a legal contract that said that I was a producer from this point forward, and I made David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith sign it. On set. So, I think it stands, but I have to check with a lawyer. My plan is to retroactively kind of do that, but let’s just see how the movie does first. But I have it. I’ve saved it. It’s signed.
BTH: I was a witness. I was like, look, get your money.
Does that mean being a producer is a kind of requirement for you now?AP: It really depends on the project. I mean, I think the experience of producing Ingrid Goes West was really satisfying because I just got to be involved in every single process, and being involved in the post process, like, changed everything for me. So, now it depends. If it was something that I felt like was my baby then yeah, I’d want to produce. But if the Coen brothers call me up, I’m gonna do whatever they say.
BTH: Just drop that nugget!
AP: I mean, whoever! I’m just saying, you know, there’s a time and a place.
BTH: And sometimes it’s on set! Right now, with a crayon, holding producers hostage [laughs].
GB: I didn’t know this happened.
AP: We’ll talk about that later. Just don’t sign anything before you talk to me first.
Gabriel, having done several horror movies at this point, do you want to keep going with the genre or do you want to branch out? Be a superhero, or maybe a supervillain?
BTH: Ohhhhh I would love to see you as a villain!
AP: You should play, like, a British kid, and go take one of those British kid’s jobs. Can you do an accent?
GB: I’ve done a Scottish accent. I think probably just like a drama that’s like focused around my range would be nice.
You and Aubrey could do a Coen brothers movies together.
GB: That would be awesome.
BTH: Oh, so I can’t do it because I’m black? She just went right around me like, “You guys can do it!” [Laughs] No, they don’t cast black people. That’s cool. Thanks guys.
I’m sorry, Aubrey, were you going to —
AP: No, I was just going to say I’m half Puerto Rican. I just wanted you to put that down.
BTH: I want to see you write it down.
GB: I think that’s the third thing you told me about yourself.
Okay I’ll circle it. Underline it. There we go.
AP: I heard they want a Latina for Catwoman, so I’m going to use press opportunity to build the awareness.