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How Ready or Not’s Nicky Guadagni Landed on This Face for Aunt Helene

Nicky Guadagni as Aunt Helene, who is obviously the happiest woman alive. Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

One of the earliest hints in Ready or Not that something might be very, very wrong in the Le Domas family is Aunt Helene. When we first spot her during what begins as a festive wedding weekend for Grace (Samara Weaving) and Alex (Mark O’Brien), she is glowering. Her gray hair is spiked high in a way that makes her look like either a high-end fashion designer or a villain in an animated Disney movie. The look on her face is judgmental, severe, and scary. Her aesthetic is elegant. But the vibe she gives off screams, “Head for the freakin’ hills.”

The multifaceted nature of Helene’s oddness comes through thanks to Nicky Guadagni, a veteran Canadian actress who has worked mostly in television and theater and won this nice, juicy part in Ready or Not. During a recent phone call from Barcelona, which Guadagni was visiting while her son, a professional poker player, competed in the European Poker Tour, she explained what was initially daunting, and ultimately fulfilling, about transforming into the most intimidating woman in an extremely messed-up family.

Note: This interview, which has been condensed and edited, contains spoilers about Ready or Not.

How did you get this role in Ready or Not
Well, they were casting certain roles in Toronto. They’d probably used up their budget on the Hollywood actors, and Aunt Helene still wasn’t cast. So I went in and saw a casting agent in Toronto named John Buchan, who actually had a bad back at the time and asked if I knew a good chiropractor. I remember being distracted thinking about [that], because I do energy work and things and it’s distracting thinking that John needed to go see somebody.

Anyway, I loved the role. A few days later, I got a call saying the directors wanted to meet me. And then they didn’t have time to meet me, but they had time for a phone call. So I had to have a phone call with [one of the] directors, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin. Honestly, I was so nervous about talking to the director on the phone. I was with a girlfriend, and she made me a glass of vodka and something, and we watched my demo tape so I would be able to watch my work and remind myself that I was a good actress. Does that sound crazy?

No, but I’m wondering why you were more nervous about this than about other conversations you’ve had.
Because it was a feature with many days, which meant money. And not only was it a feature, but it was a great … you know, I shouldn’t say that it was great, because I hadn’t read the whole script at that point. I had only read Aunt Helene’s scenes. I’d read the breakdown of her character, and I thought, This is something I can really get my teeth into. Usually, what I would go up for are jobs that are maybe one or two days and, most often, not characters that are exciting to play or a great script. So that’s why I was nervous. I just needed to remind myself — I’m sure you do that. I think everybody does. You sit with a friend who goes, “Remember you’re this. Remember you’re that.” And you go, “Yes, yes, yes!”

Yeah, we all have imposter syndrome.
Yes, I think we do. So I watched the best of Nicky Guadagni over the last 20 years of my film demo and felt better about myself.

Then how did the conversation go?
Matt and I got on really well on the phone. My friend’s dog was licking my feet and I made reference to it, and Matt actually was also sitting with a dog. We started talking about dogs. We talked so easily and had an easy rapport, and that happened all during the film.

I don’t have a lot of experience in film, and I’m working with people who are heavyweights, you know? I was watching them like a hawk: how they moved around the set and how they focused before a take. It’s fascinating to me.

What kinds of things did you pick up on?
Well, the concentration. I mean, I did a tiny role in Lars and the Real Girl when Ryan Gosling was just coming to the forefront. I always thought he was brilliant even from that awful TV show he did as a kid. I shouldn’t say it’s an awful TV show.

He would probably say it was awful too.
Yeah, probably. I would watch him, just the kind of focus you need to shut out the rest of the world while you mine the depths of the character you’re playing. It requires an immense amount of concentration and composure and belief in yourself. One of the other things I remember [from Ready or Not]: You know the scene where Henry Czerny tells Samara’s character the whole history of the Le Domas family? I was sitting beside Henry when he did that scene, and every time he did a take, it was slightly different. Every time he spoke the script, it sounded like he was thinking of it right then and there. I asked Henry afterward, How long did you practice that? How long did you work on it? And he said, oh, three weeks, every day in my hotel room. In my trailer.

I wanted to ask about developing the look for Aunt Helene and what that process was like. She is elegant and scary at the same time. 
I mean, I have nothing to do with that. This is not a situation where the actor is allowed any input. With this makeup and hair and wardrobe: expensive. These women — they’re all women — send their drawings and their clippings to the producers and directors, and the directors come back and go yes and no and a little more of this or a little more of that.

The hair woman said, “This hairstyle took less time than practically any hairstyle I’ve ever done, and it has the most effect.” Because she just teased up my hair. So once the hair person did their thing and the wardrobe dressed me and the makeup person does their thing, then I go back to the trailer and I look in the mirror and I go, “Okay. This is who I am.”

I knew from the script that she was interesting because one of the things I found fascinating was that she didn’t help to kill her fiancé, and she regretted not taking part in it more than anything. Because if she had taken part in it, then she would’ve had her top status in the Le Domas family. Since she didn’t kill him herself, she lost status to her brother. So that was a really interesting idea for me. Then you start pulling. Definitely Cruella De Vil and Ursula from The Little Mermaid were my muses. And also Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities. 

You know that shot of me at the wedding looking quite grotesque? I had no idea how grotesque I looked until I saw the trailer. I just sat there with that kind of determination and anger and bitterness and revenge and evil and let it take over my body — and my face, obviously. It was so much fun.

I wanted to ask you about the ending of the movie because it’s my understanding that the directors may have had a slightly different ending at some point? I don’t know if they had changed the ending before it got to you guys. Did you shoot different versions of the ending? 
We always shot the version that ended up in the movie. This is the first I’m hearing of there being any alternate. That’s all I know.

Okay, tell me about shooting that scene. 
So many of the scenes that look horrendous and horrific are actually fairly easy. I mean, it’s not like they had to blow me up. All they had to do was have a shot of me with a battle-ax. And then I’m not in the scene, and they splattered blood on everybody else. That’s kind of how it works, you know? You never see where the crossbow is shot into the maid’s mouth. It looks horrendous, but it’s fairly easy to do because you have a shot of the maid without an arrow in her mouth and then you have a shot of her with an arrow in her mouth. It’s so amazing what they can do relatively easily.

I’m wondering whether you thought about the implications of the ending. The whole time you’re watching, you’re expecting this rich family to get their comeuppance, and they do get it but they were correct about their assumption that if they violated their pact with the devil, they would die. What did you make of that?
I suppose the rich people know for what they’re fighting, you know? They understand. I hadn’t thought about this, but I just read something in the New York Times today about a Republican senator from Oklahoma who’s fighting for his lake, to flood it every year so the levels rise for his boating and his neighbors’ boating. Meanwhile, the town down the road and the Native reserve down the road are feeling the effects of this, and it’s not good. This Republican senator knows what he has to do to maintain his lifestyle, and he doesn’t care who he’s going to mess up. That’s how the Le Domas family feels. In their case, their lives are at stake. It’s also tradition, which, of course, Aunt Helene is going on about all the time.

Does that make sense? Does that answer your question?

It does. There’s no wrong answer here; I was just curious as to what you thought. I don’t know if this was the intent or not, but you also leave the theater thinking that these rich, entitled people won’t survive. 
Yeah, well, they won’t survive if all of a sudden their enemies decide to fight back with real grit and determination. If Grace hadn’t had that kind of determination and resourcefulness, then the rich would’ve won and she would’ve lain on that table and been killed.

The response to the movie has been very positive. It has gotten a lot of great reviews. How have you reacted to all that?
I’ve been ecstatic. When something that you really put your heart and soul into and enjoyed shooting — that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be successful. But in this case … it was successful. I think that’s very, very rare. I’ve got three kids and they’ve all been messaging me and sending me links, and my son sent me a link this morning that Stephen King said Ready or Not was a great film.

It may be too soon to know, but do you have any sense as to whether this film is going to lead to some other movie roles for you?
I hope so. I honestly don’t have a — how do I say this without sounding pathetic? Ready or Not is almost the only film and TV work I’ve done in the last couple of years. Ever since I turned 40, I noticed the work has gotten fewer and farther between. I’m now 66. I would really, really love to think I would be considered for big stuff, because I think I can handle it.

I have a daughter who’s an actress, and I just love the way she has so much self-confidence and so much belief in herself and belief that she will get the part. We have a joke that I walk into a waiting room full of actors at an audition and I think, Oh, she’d be much better for this role. And my daughter thinks, I’m the one who should get this role. So it’s a completely different attitude, and partly it’s a difference in our ages.

I understand where you’re coming from.
It does sound a bit pathetic, but, you know, honestly I’ve done 20 or 30 self-tapes in the last couple of years and Ready or Not was almost the only thing I ever got. So that’s why, getting back to the beginning of our conversation, I had to play that demo before I talked to Matt on the phone. I had to psych myself up.

Well, I hope a lot of good things come your way, because you were great in the movie.
Thank you so much.

I might go as Aunt Helene for Halloween.
Oh really?

Oh man, that would be so cool. You’ve got to send me a photograph if you do. Oh, I love that!

How Ready or Not’s Nicky Guadagni Landed on This Face