Imogen Poots did not grow up around horror films, and yet from 28 Weeks Later to Fright Night to the Nazi-slaughtering panic attack that was Green Room, she’s appeared in some of the genre’s best recent additions to the canon. This month, she can add one particularly noteworthy title to the list: Black Christmas. It’s the third of its kind to carry that name, the first debuting in 1974 as one of the earliest slasher films. (It’d later serve as inspiration for John Carpenter’s Halloween.) In the 2019 reimagining, directed and co-written by Sophia Takal, there’s still a house of sorority sisters being stalked by a mysterious male antagonist, but that’s just about where the comparisons stop. At the center of the action now is Poots’s Riley, a college senior who was attacked by a frat douche her freshman year and is still dealing with the traumatic fallout. Semesters later, she stumbles upon her assailant’s Panhellenic bros in a most surprising manner.
The 30-year-old British actress made her first big-screen appearance in 2005’s V for Vendetta, and in between her horror work, she’s popped up in indie dramas (Sweet Virginia), the occasional period piece (Jane Eyre), and comedies (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping), but through it all, her intervening roles in the more nightmarish of fare have stood out. Poots’s dramatic range combined with her angel-soft face, which twists up perfectly in a state of extreme duress, make her an elite horror heroine. “She has an intelligence that just made it clear to me right away she would be perfect for that part,” Takal said of her Black Christmas star. Ahead of the premiere, Vulture sat down with Poots to talk rebooting an iconic horror property, being a part of the Blumhouse universe, and why some male horror fans find sanitary pads more frightening than guns.
You’ve played a broad array of characters over the years, but you really broke out in 28 Weeks Later. How has your relationship with horror cinema and the roles offered to you changed over the years?
I really feel more than ever like genre, and I include horror and sci-fi within that, just totally supply an extraordinary platform for female performance. If you look at Hereditary last year with Toni Collette or you go back to Bergman’s Persona or Sophia’s movies, like Always Shine and Green, those are just real studies of female psyche under such a tight microscope.
Why did you say yes to this script, and to Sophia, in particular?
Over the years I’d emailed Sophia being like, “I want to work with you so much!” Ever since I saw her in this movie called Gabi on the Roof in July, it was the first time I’d seen these characters onscreen that were highly unlikable, really testy, and really naked in all of their fallibility. Then watching her work with Kate Lyn Sheil in Green and then the actresses in Always Shine, I just felt they were such an incredible, rare examination of the female. I think something that’s really well-worn is this idea that a female protagonist has to be strong. That’s really disappointing. I think seeing ugliness and weakness and falling short of triumph is really noble. I think that’s lacking in a big way, and I just really felt Sophia has a great handle on that.
I knew if I had any trepidation about doing a horror movie produced by Blumhouse, Sophia was a safety net. I knew that even if something was going to be a little bit corny or a little bit cheesy, that was okay, and I was meant to lean into how fun it would be. I think the tone of this movie, if it was taken too seriously — or it just became like too basic or too elemental — then you lose it. It has to have the Sophia Takal ingredient.
“Strong” has become one of those terms, like “badass,” that seem to have been flattened by overuse. I think it’s also become a sort of handy word for people who might not necessarily understand the totality of what a character embodying “strength” actually looks like.
Yes! It’s the same with the word “feminism.” There are two questions I’ve been asked that I’ve found really interesting. One was sort of about the bonding on set, and there is this real focus on the friendships [in Black Christmas]. I was like, yeah, but there’s also conflict in there. The characters don’t agree with each other all the time. They have different opinions and different values. People mature at different speeds and different rhythms. I don’t think you should turn up at college and be a fully formed feminist and know exactly what you stand for and what you represent. Additionally, people are like, “What was it like working with a female director?” As if that would make this set any softer. “Yeah! Everything we ate was pink!” Like, what do you expect?
The way I see character buzzwords used also implies that the inverse of a constant state of strength is bad, therefore we should be aspiring to “strength” at all times. So, in terms of Black Christmas, what did you want to bring to Riley in this horror heroine role to make her feel real and complete?
It was interesting, because when I first read the script I was really frustrated by her passivity and this sense that she just wouldn’t wake up. She was asleep. Then you learn about the traumatic event in her past. I think I can advocate for both sides about why someone would feel they couldn’t speak up or didn’t have the right or there wasn’t a place for their voice, and in a parallel world, why you should speak up and why you have that responsibility to the sisterhood so it doesn’t happen to other people. I found that kind of an interesting dilemma, and I think it’s very easy for an outsider to say what the right thing was to do in that situation.
Riley is an assault survivor, and you’ve played characters before that are really carrying their trauma with them. How are you taking care of yourself on set when you go to these places mentally?
In all honesty, I did find this film, more than any other I’ve been a part of really, trying in that sense. Because I think that first of all, you’re part of an ensemble and so there’s a lot of energy put into that group mentality. I also think kind of balancing Riley with the tone of the film was interesting, cause you wanna play the truth of the moment and you want to play the truth of the horror, but also kind of wink to the audience occasionally with something as gimmicky as Black Mask. I do think that her constant inner turmoil and the tension and that paralysis is exhausting, and I would find that when we finished work you just want that release. I really realized that’s what we walk around with as women. Don’t take up too much space. The pitch of your voice goes up, you clench your fist, you ask, you say please, you say thank you a million more times than you need to. You apologize without even thinking about it. I think that’s the exhausting part of playing a character like this, but I have the benefit of many different forms of privilege where I can breathe through my life.
The four main girls perform a very provocative Christmas song in front of a bunch of frat boys early on in the movie. What was your reaction to that scene when you first read it?
Oh, I thought the song was fucking amazing! For me, it was a real relief to come across that in the script, because I was like, “Okay. It’s a genre movie. Protagonist is super passive, but Sophia’s writing it!” Then reading more and thinking, “But Sophia’s gonna direct it!” Just waiting, waiting, waiting, and then the song was a real entry point for me to the tone of the movie. It was kind of interesting actually, that day shooting, because all of us are in these fucking tight velvet red dresses, like clinging to our butt cracks, and we sang the song to a live audience of guys and it did feel new. It felt exhilarating, not only to be amongst your colleagues who are predominantly women, but also to do that song. There was a sense of fun to it as well. For me it was also an examination of the sorority itself and the fact that this actually happens. Like, the idea of the talent show and these girls being totally objectified in their sexy dresses getting up onstage and then subverting it by delivering a kind of war cry was really fun.
Jason Blum said at the premiere that it’s one of his favorite scenes in any of the movies they’ve produced.
I think it’s a really incredible belief they have. To do something that’s controversial enough to kind of attack old American institutions and say there is an issue with fraternities and sororities and the kind of reinforcement of those gender categories, and that it’s okay for a filmmaker to explore that with her film — and that’s going to be a PG-13. I think Blumhouse is really part of that conversation where you can reflect culture back on itself. It’s helpful for an audience and it’s really helpful for a teenage audience. I think that this is a pivotal moment, and yet still for Black Christmas to come out and there to be a sense of a male audience being like, “Eek! I don’t know if I want to see that!” — that’s a problem.
Horror fandom can be a wonderful and welcoming space for weirdos and freaks, but there’s also a large boys’ club within it who fancy themselves gatekeepers of the genre. They’re the ones who truly know and understand horror, and yet will also react to the Black Christmas trailer by saying the genre is too political now — as if there was not a century of inherently political cinema before it, including the original Black Christmas.
It wasn’t as if that film had nothing progressive about it at all, if you look at it through the mirror of what had just happened in the early ’70s regarding abortion.
And it’s not like this is an all-female reboot. Guys, it was always a sorority.
It’s a struggle, because it’s a time where there is a lot of fear-mongering, and a binary mentality, where there’s a real lack of nuance. So, I think people may miss certain things about this film, such as a female character that’s complicit with the patriarchy or a male character that’s rebelling against it. But I also think it’s impossible to control that. You make something. You want it to be the best it can be. I do think it’s acknowledging that the patriarchy, as Gloria Steinem says, is in us. Like, entrenched in us. It’s very old and therefore perceived as being natural, but I think people have a lot of trouble with that and a struggle with it. I would be probably quite disappointed if there wasn’t a polarizing response to the film, because it means that people are just sleeping through it. It will find an audience and there will be people it resonates with. It has to further something, and sometimes you need to kind of shove it up the ass for it do that. Even seeing a girl put a sanitary pad in her pants on screen will be more shocking to the majority of those men than seeing a gun pulled out.
Yeah and forget about the Diva Cup.
Yeah. My, sort of — the team went to see the film and I guess all the men in that room were like, “What’s a Diva Cup?!” Love it. Wait till you hear about the Mooncup. It’ll be great. Keep it coming.