Brittany Allen was terrified to shoot What Keeps You Alive — and that’s exactly how she wanted it.
In the visceral, nerve-shredding thriller (on digital platforms and in select theaters Friday), Allen plays Jules, whose weekend retreat to a scenic cabin with wife Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) devolves into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse when Jules is suddenly forced to question whether she really knows the woman she married.
“The reason I feel fear is because I’ve exposed myself in the truest, most honest way,” explains the actress, who spends much of the film — Allen’s third collaboration with writer-director Colin Minihan (whom she also dates off-screen) — bloodied and battered, fighting tooth-and-nail to outfox an unexpectedly sadistic adversary. “And whether it’s the physical demands or the emotional demands, I ultimately get off on that.”
Fortunately, What Keeps You Alive offered the actress (who also crafted the film’s ominous synth-score) plenty of nightmare fuel. On screen, Jules is put through the wringer; and on set, Allen was similarly pushed to her breaking point, racing through the Canadian wilderness, throwing herself from jagged cliffs, and performing many of the film’s most punishing stunts herself.
“Maybe I’m meant to be in an action movie, because I love throwing my body around,” says Allen, laughing. “But there were moments where I would finish a day and be utterly, utterly exhausted by what we had done and then couldn’t fathom that I had to do it all again the next day.”
Speaking from just north of Toronto, where she’s sequestered in the family cottage where she and Minihan first dreamed up the horror-thriller, Allen can now comfortably laugh about the harrowing shoot — even if she gets serious discussing the unrelenting darkness of the film that came from it.
What Keeps You Alive is in limited release and on VOD Friday. Read on for EW’s full Q&A with Allen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re speaking to me from essentially the same location where you shot What Keeps You Alive. What appealed to you about making a movie in such a remote setting?
BRITTANY ALLEN: I suppose it’s that I feel most effortlessly myself when I’m in nature… And the last two films that Colin and I made together, we’ve made for a pretty modest budget. So we’re always thinking, “How can we actually achieve this and how can we keep our ideas to something that is possible for the budget we’re working within?” So, because my parents had this cabin, one of our first thoughts was, “We should shoot a movie there.” And that’s where the initial idea was conceived around, though then we did find this much bigger, much more haunting and cinematic cottage a few lakes over that we ultimately ended up shooting in. It had books in it still that were from the early 1900s. It was an antique store, essentially.
You end up spending a lot of time running through the woods, under fairly horrific circumstances. How did you approach playing a role that physical?
I love roles that challenge me physically. I’m not one of those people that goes to the gym every day in my normal life, and it takes a lot of willpower to be one of those people. So when I have a role like this, I have to suddenly find the strength in me that I’m not accustomed to practicing on a daily basis. It’s incredibly empowering to realize what I’m capable of. Even though there were days where I might be screaming as I’m rowing across the lake for the hundredth time and Colin — from a perch on the cliffs a safe distance away — is walkie-ing, “Row harder, row harder,” and I’m getting blisters all over my fingers, and my arms haven’t worked that hard in my life. I’m feeling the pain in that moment. But at the end of it all, I realized that I was capable of something that I didn’t think that I was, and that’s I think just one of the things that I love most about acting.
What Keeps You Alive is also so brutal because of the emotional trauma Jules endures. What was the biggest challenge in capturing that?
Accessing a stronger part of myself. I worked on getting deeper in my voice, to start to be less and less feminine, to let go of caring about how I looked. Colin and I discussed in advance that Jules wouldn’t wear any makeup. She was wearing loose-fitting clothes, and I didn’t want to be at all concerned with how pretty or not I looked in this film. That of course, as a girl in this industry, stirs stuff up in you as well.
And then it was about emotionally working through the betrayal. I like roles that push me to extremes emotionally, and we all have a bevy of extreme emotions existing inside of us. In our day-to-day life, we’re not given the opportunity to express those feelings. So when I have a role like this, I can let out despair. I can let out rage. I can let out betrayal and deep sadness. It’s an opportunity to just pull these things out of me that are sitting there anyways, bottled up. And sometimes that can be a really freeing thing.
Do you have any particularly intense survival stories from set?
Yes. [Laughs.] I feel like I could get into trouble from the union if I say too much. But yeah, there was one moment where I was driving a car, and my character was supposed to be in a pretty frenzied state. So driving in a straight and orderly line was not what was required. And I think both myself and the [director of photography] David Schuurman, put ourselves a little too close to, you know, the edge in that moment.
There was one pretty physically demanding day where I had to throw my body around for hours, and then I think the day ended with Hannah dragging me on my bare back through a wood. She was having to carry my body weight, and I think I looked at Hannah at the end of the day and she had spent some of the day lying face-down on a rock as it was raining. She was definitely registering the kind of film that we were making that day as well. [Laughs.] But we survived it, and we laugh about it.
You’ve cited Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as influences on the film’s score, which you composed. How did you zero in on the sound of the film?
At first, I was so overwhelmed by the task at hand that, when I went to begin scoring something, I would fall asleep at my computer.[Laughs.] I was so overwhelmed! However, simultaneously, it was surprisingly something that came to me very naturally. In all of my creative work in acting, in my visual art, in making music, the best art that comes out of me comes from the same place, which is when I connect emotionally and gutturally to the context. So with scoring, I would watch a scene a number of times, and I would sit with what it was, really feel into it and let it affect me. And then I would sit at the piano and I would just play, and trust my hands.
I had my iPhone recording it as I went, so if I stumbled onto something, it would capture it. I’m not a trained pianist or really a trained musician other than in voice, but in the last couple of years I have been teaching myself music production. At the time, I was working in Logic and I had learned just enough to then apply what I had learned to the score.
I had a pretty limited palette at the time, because a year ago I was even more new to it than I am now, and so I had a couple of virtual synths that I worked with that I’d heard were very good for scoring. That too was a process of just kind of scrolling as quickly as you can through your samples, asking yourself what the vibe of a scene is and what resonates with you the most. The scenes that had to be more heady were the more suspenseful ones, because Colin would actually hit this beat when a character turns and then suddenly light flashes across the wall and then there’s a moment of hope. When there’s a bunch of different dynamics the characters are going through, that was where I had to educate myself a bit more.
You wore multiple hats on this project. Do you see yourself taking on more in the future, perhaps writing and directing?
Definitely. I absolutely see myself directing and writing in the future. I exist in the world through my art. That’s how I make sense of things. That’s where I put all of my feelings. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know how to deal with them. I’m emboldened by all of the female writers, directors, and creators that are out there that have always been out there but now I’m excited by the opportunities that are being given to women, and by the women who are just going out and making opportunities for themselves.
Some of the most exciting genre films of the past few years have come from female filmmakers, from Anna Biller’s The Love Witch and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook to Julia Ducournau’s Raw and Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation. As the actress behind a really gritty, uncompromising horror-thriller, in what ways do you think the female perspective will bring new complexity to these genres?
A couple things that might come from women being at the helm of these genre films are, firstly, that the female characters in them will be a lot less likely to be objectified victims, purely there to pleasure the teen boy audience. And thank God for that. [Laughs.] I can’t wait to see more multifaceted female and male characters in these films. Not to say that there haven’t been movies made by men with those characters — Colin Minihan is an example of someone who always writes very strong female characters — but I think that that trope will be less likely to be used.
Also, women throughout the history of art have often been drawn to magic realism and surrealism. I think of the art of Frida Kahlo, Kay Sage or Isabel Allende in literature, women who’ve found their voices in genre storytelling. When they’ve been unable to articulate themselves literally in a society that might not accept their position on things, they have found more metaphorical ways to express that rage or that need or their strength or their pain or suffering that many women have experienced in these societies. That excites me, and that’s the kind of story I see myself telling.
Women do have this wellspring of ideas, as much as we might have been told otherwise in fairy tales growing up. There’s this image of a docile, pretty, agreeable woman. I think because women have been encouraged to be that for so long, all the other feelings that have been in there have gotten even stronger and more ready to disperse through the surface. Those feelings of rage, horror, fury, strength, and power — I think genre filmmaking allows for these strong and extreme emotions to be expressed, in a way a quiet, independent drama might not.
What’s next for you?
I’m in Toronto working on a new series called The Boys, for Amazon, the new show by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg… It’s a dark take on superheroes and celebrity culture. It’s by the same comic-book artist who does Preacher on AMC, so it’s super dark, funny, violent, and commenting on society.
I’m excited about the music that I’m making right now, and I am starting to put some tracks out. I go by Audrey and I put out this track, “Bloodlet.” And I’ve got a bunch of other original songs that I’ve produced, mixed and written that I’ll be putting out in the next couple of months. That’s something that’s very near and dear to me. It feels like as an actor you are always saying someone else’s words. So the act of putting my own words out there is an exhilarating and frightening experience that I’m excited to be doing more of.